The Last Jedi – What lessons can a Writer/Storyteller learn from this film?

Hello everyone, welcome.  Today I am going to jump on a blogging bandwagon that I have been avoiding for a couple of weeks, because movie review isn’t really what this site is about.  Certainly I could review movies, but have no real desire to do so and it isn’t like there is a shortage of other folks doing it any way.  Anyway, back to my bandwagon.  Today I am going to talk a bit about the recent movie, The Last Jedi.  However, my purpose is not to review but to examine some of the elements that folks think didn’t work/didn’t like and trying to take lessons from that.  Before I start I will say 4 things

  1. There are going to be spoilers
  2. If you didn’t like the film, the reasons you didn’t like it are valid.
  3. If you liked the film, the reasons you liked it are valid
  4. Anyone who argues against points 2 and 3 is wrong

This post is not here to cause division.  And I would request, regardless on which side of the fence you sit, that if you choose to comment you remain respectful to folks who have different opinions.

I think a bit of an introduction to the film is warranted.  The Last Jedi is probably the most divisive film to come out in recent years, proving to be almost as divisive on the population as the Scottish Independence Referendum, the UK Brexit Referendum and the all time number one, who wins in a fight between Batman and Superman.

A lot of folks came out of the movie exhilarated, or at the very least with a sense of enjoyment.  Though, admittedly even the most vocal supporters of the film conceded there were flaws, but they still enjoyed it.  On the other side of the fence there was a lot of anger towards the film.  I am going to admit, despite my previous expectation, I was actually in the first camp.  I say despite previous expectation as I really didn’t like The Force Awakens.  I will touch on why now.

Audience Expectation

I think that a large part of the dislike for The Last Jedi, and my particular dislike for The Force Awakens comes from unfulfilled expectation.  I will deal with mine first, as it bears relevance to The Last Jedi outpouring of anger, and it is relevant in general.  So, as an audience member I grew up with Star Wars.  And as any geeky kid did when they were into a fandom, they collected the toys, and the videogames and the comics and the books.  As a result of this, I read quite a lot of Star Wars books and Graphic novels in the 1990s, all of which were considered canon at the time.  And most of them were great.  And then The Force Awakens comes along.  And with one fell swoop all of those great stories were wiped out.  Fair enough, it is a movie franchise and I can accept “versions” of the universe, in the same way that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a version of the Marvel Comic Universe.  The main problem, for me, was that all these great stories were wiped out in support of what was essentially a movie with a near identical plot to Star Wars and, to one extent or other, The Phantom Menace.  So, I was annoyed because I was expecting respectful treatment of lore, and of the original fanbase, and instead the lore was removed in order to do a rehash.  That was my perspective on The Force Awakens.  I watched it the night before The Last Jedi with no such expectations, and I found it entertaining.  Not necessarily brilliant, but entertaining – because my expectations were reset to 0.  In actuality this is more or less exactly how I felt walking out of The Last Jedi.  I went with no expectations and got an entertaining movie with flaws.

Here is the thing, I saw a George Lucas interview and he talks about the poetry of Star Wars.  He very much wanted his verses to rhyme, which is why things have a way of happening before and again.  In some respects that is quite clever.  It does, however breed expectations that these cycles will continue.  For instance, the entire movie The Force Awakens was about finding Luke Skywalker as the resistance felt they needed a Jedi Master to fight the First Order.  In The Last Jedi what the viewer got was not just a cynical Luke, but one who was borderline hostile to the idea of return.  They got a Luke who was willing to murder a student to prevent a terrible future.  They got a Luke that was flawed, almost irredeemably so.  And this was unexpected.

For two years I have heard dozens of theories about the origin of Rey, and her parentage.  I saw debates about her being a Skywalker, a Kenobi and so on and so on.  I saw similar debates about the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke.  Was he Darth Plagueis?  Was he Mace Windu gone bitter?  What about Jar Jar Binks?  (Ok maybe not Jar Jar, but there were many debates).  The Last Jedi was hotly anticipated because people thought that in the spirit of the “Luke I am your father…” moment of The Empire Strikes Back there might be some revelation to be had.  People were excited to find out who these characters were.  And it turns out Rey is the child of a nobody, strong in the force.  This wasn’t a let down for me as I really wasn’t invested in any of the debates, but I can see why folks would be.  Snoke dies ignominiously at the hands of Kylo Ren, his lineage never disclosed.  I actually liked that.  He had been built up over the two films as a powerful villain, however he served an even more powerful purpose.  He was the proof that Kylo Ren was no longer the annoying brat of the first movie.  If Snoke is so powerful, how powerful is the person that kills him?  I really liked that, partly because it was a plot device I have seen used well in Stargate SG1 with Apophis killing Sokar.  (Granted Sokar had about a series to become scary and as such was more effective).  However, if you have invested much time in trying to figure him (Snoke) out, to have him die unceremoniously is disappointing.  I think I was only disappointed that he wasn’t as big as holo-projection from the first movie.

In fact, looking at all of the potential disappointments that I have listed here it feels like the film (Awakens or Jedi depending on your point of view…) has just told you, “Your reading, and your debates have kept me alive since the last movie.  Yay!  I am now going to disregard all of that.”

The new director either didn’t know how invested Star Wars fans are, or didn’t care.  As a result, a lot of folk were unhappy.  If it is the former, then the lesson to learn is “Know who your audience is”.  If it is the latter, “Make damn sure your story is strong enough to survive the backlash”.

Plot Devices that Make no sense to the circumstance

In one of the Earlier Scenes of the Movie, a wave of Resistance Bombers make a run on a First Order Dreadnought.  (It could be Dreadnaught, as historically that was the spelling in Star Wars Books, however I am basing it on the spelling of HMS Dreadnought).  These slow moving space bombers plod towards the Dreadnought, Poe Dameron having destroyed the defensive batteries.  However, they are shot to pieces by fighters and other Star Destroyers as they are too slow, and evidently not well shielded.  And, the Bombers have ventral bomb bay doors to drop their bombs on target.  Like, for instance a Lancaster Bomber would have done in World War 2.  There is one problem with that.  Lancaster Bombers operated in an atmosphere, and gravity caused their bombs to fall from the Bomb Bay.  Not quite sure how that is supposed to work in space.  In fact, even if they had an ejection system, the design makes no sense to the job role.  If the job is to take out capital starships, like the Dreadnought, then surely a torpedo bomber is more effective?  It flies in, hits the target and flies out.  They don’t need to be flying slowly over the target, they can launch when they are quite far away.  If you want to see Y Wings doing that quite well, watch Rogue One.

The Bombing Run in this movie is a slaughter, though does ultimately succeed, but for me it feels like the Bombers were designed poorly for the task required just so Poe Dameron could get a dressing down by General Leia.

I think the lesson here to learn is along the lines of  “If you need a specific outcome from a scene (IE the Bombers being massacred) don’t achieve this by designing a plot device that makes no sense/is incredibly weak in the context (IE Space Bombers based on Surface Bomber Design).  Achieve the outcome by other means (Competence on the other side?)”  I think this scene would have worked better with Y Wings/B Wings getting shot down by Tie Fighters.  Y WIngs and B Wings are designed more for this sort of mission, however you could still achieve the narrative objective (Slaughter so that Poe gets roasted by Leia) by showing just how many Tie Fighters a Star Destroyer carries.

Stock Characters and their Sacrifices

As part of the plot of The Last Jedi, Leia and all the named Resistance Leaders are killed/incapacitated early on in the film.  As a result, the small fleet of Resistance ships is taken over by purple haired Vice Admiral Holdo, played by well Laura Dern.  I should point out that in a number of comments I have made about this character, I have given a less than favourable opinion of her.  This is not a criticism of Laura Dern’s acting.  It is a criticism of the character’s treatment in story.

With Leia out of the picture the Resistance Fleet, under Holdo’s command, attempts to escape a pursuing force of Star Destroyers.  Holdo has a plan which she chooses not to share with Poe Dameron (as is her prerogative as a Vice Admiral…).  This causes tension and a minor mutiny, ultimately brought to an end by Leia who wakes from her coma, stuns Poe and hands things back over to Holdo whose plan was pretty sound all along.  Unfortunately due to circumstances that I will outline shortly, the plan goes badly and requires someone to make the ultimate sacrifice.  Leia is going to.  Holdo actually does.  In a spectacular scene, she pilots her now empty crusier to Hyperspace through the First Order Super Star Destroyer causing severe damage and a shock wave that neutralises most of the First Order Fleet.  Many have claimed this is a really good example of strong female lead.  My only issue with that is we had about five minutes to bond with the character.  As such, I had no strong reaction to her sacrifice.  It was like when Jazz was killed in the Michael Bay Transformers.  He had a handful of lines and virtually no screen time, so when he died I really didn’t care (and I should have because Jazz is awesome normally).   This lack of bonding time was exacerbated by what I would call the most boring chase scene I have ever seen.  (more on that in a bit).

The Lesson here, “If your sole purpose in putting in a character is to sacrifice them, make us care about them first.”

Repetition

If something works in one scene, it might work in others, right?  Well, yes, but if it is every other scene then perhaps it has been repeated too much and your audience aren’t going to be interested the third or fourth time it crops up.  In The Last Jedi one of the plots revolves around a Flotilla of Resistance Ships (A Cruiser, A Frigate and a Couple of Corvettes with maybe a couple of fighter squadrons maximum) being chased by a Super Star Destroyer and its accompanying escort of Star Destroyers.  For reasons that defy reason, the First Order decides rather than close in and destroy the Resistance ships, or to send in a Legion of Tie Fighters, it will stay at long range and bombard the convoy until it is out of fuel.  Overlooking the fact that the Resistance is outmatched in every conceivable way, I will only focus on the chase itself.  The film takes place over a relatively short time period.  And for approximately 3 Quarters of it, the Resistance fleet is being pursued.  Possibly it was felt this would be a suitable tribute to The Empire Strikes Back  which had exciting pursuit scenes of the Millennium Falcon by Star Destroyers, Tie Fighters and even Tie Bombers trying to flush the Falcon from cover.  Unfortunately, in this movie all we have is a flotilla of heavily damaged ships creeping away from a much larger, better equipped force content to bombard fromineffective range.  This scene happens many times in the movie, and even if I didn’t find its reason fro being implausible the first time, the repetition is a killer.

Lesson here, “Just because it worked once does not mean it will work every other time.” or “Repetition is boring.”

Plot Driven or Character Agency

One thing I noticed about The Last Jedi was that in the Resistance Escape plot, if the main characters had died or did nothing for the entire film, the resistance would have been better off.  Nothing the characters did moved the plot towards their desired goal.  Finn and his new friend Rose escape the fleet to try and recruit a Slicer to slip aboard Snoke’s flagship and disable a plot device that allows the First Order to track the Resistance.  This leads to a series of adventures which does serve a purpose in Finn’s plot development but does not advance the Resistance Plot, except to completely ruin Vice Admiral Holdo’s plan to get her people to safety.  In fact, Holdo’s sacrifice would, arguably, not have been needed if Finn and Rose had never left the ship.  Unfortunately, they are betrayed on Snoke’s Ship which results in the First Order noticing the Rebel Ships that Holdo had been hiding from them.  This results in the need for a sacrifice and for the Resistance to land on an abandoned Rebel Base.  In my view, this movie was not about a character driven story but about a confrontation between the First Order and the remnants of the Resistance, with a bit of Luke Skywalker added into the mix as flavour.  In essence, everything in the movie was prelude to the final “Not Hoth” scene where the First Order Ape-AT (No idea what they are actually called) shoot down “Not B Wing or Snowspeeders” and Kylo Ren has a Showdown with Luke.  The entire movie is driving to this point, wiping out a lot of the Old Guard along the way.  The entire movie is driven by one scene at the end.  It is not about character.  It is about that final scene.

I’m not sure there is a lesson here.  Some stories are perfectly OK if the goal is to achieve an event.  Which is what this film was about.  This film was about a reset.  The plot drove the characters into a confrontation that they couldn’t win, placing the survivors at the end into a galaxy where the First Order rules supreme.  They are forced from an active resistance to a mere handful of survivors.  In essence we go back to a place we were at just before Star Wars.  Though if a reset and an “Out with the old” was the intention, I wonder why they didn’t have Leia pilot the suicide cruiser?

Final Thoughts

The Last Jedi was by no means a great movie, though as I have stated I did find it entertaining despite the flaws.  I am thankful for those flaws in this one circumstance as it gives an opportunity to learn and become better storytellers.  I will accept some of the lessons I have suggested here are a bit clunky, however despite that I think anyone considering storytelling as something they wish to do should consider them.  And then make their own decision.  Let me know what you think in the comments!

Bye for now.

2 thoughts on “The Last Jedi – What lessons can a Writer/Storyteller learn from this film?

  1. I fell into the first category as well. Like you, I didn’t much care for The Force Awakens, so I didn’t expect much from Last Jedi, and actually came out really enjoying it. I thought it was incredibly charming, and sure, I came out with a lot of questions – A LOT – but if I don’t come out of a movie with my mind a bit boggled, then I don’t feel like it’s stimulated me at all, and bizarrely, that’s what I want from a film. Plus, it’s caused me to do a lot of research on the Star Wars universe, which has been an interesting ride in itself. For example, with regards to the bombs at the beginning of the movie, I had the same question as you – how do they drop in a zero gravity atmosphere. But apparently they contain very strong magnets. Now, I’m still not entirely sure how that would work, but it makes a little more sense to me now. I just picked up the Visual Guide, and there’s supposedly a lot more info in here, if you have questions about certain characters and animals and ships etc. Like there’s a huge section on Snoke which I am dying to read because he did seem like a bit of a waste, but as the director pointed out, The Emperor got very little screen time too before he dies. It wasn’t until the prequels movies that we got way more information about him.

    1. I owned many source books like that back in the day. Reading into the background was always fun for me but then it was all nullified by Force Awakens. Still some of the good stuff is being reintroduced now. I can see how magnets could do it sort Of, though they would have spread apart on descent more I would have thought. Thanks for reading!

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